As the opening credits for Toby McTeague roll up the screen, a tiny bush plane floats above the snowbound mountains of northern Quebec. The blue sky seems limitless, oceanic. Suddenly, the picture cuts to ground level and the screen is filled with a barking husky dog whose strangely hypnotic eyes are the same electric blue as the sky. That startling juxtaposition of images lends a dramatic momentum to Toby McTeague that rarely flags. An all-Canadian family film that soars beyond the usually bland limitations of the genre, Toby McTeague explores a troubled father-and-son relationship with sensitivity and candor. The film also contains enough hair-raising dogsled races to turn viewers into aficionados of that little-known sport. Indeed, with its robust, romantic vision of life in the North, Toby McTeague may become a minor Canadian classic.
The Toby of the title is a 15-year-old boy (Yannick Bisson) whose father, Tom (Winston Rekert), flies a commercial bush plane out of the northern town of Silver Creek. Tom also raises and races sled dogs—a hobby so costly that he may be forced to give it up. Toby, a motherless youth plagued with bad judgment, makes several disastrous attempts to help his father. While exercising his father’s dogs he
goes too fast on an unfamiliar trail, killing the prized leader of the team. Shame and his father’s angry disapproval drive him into the mountains, where an old Indian, Chief George Wild Dog (George Clutesi), offers comfort and the gift of a magic necklace. Later, when Toby’s father breaks a leg in a plane crash, Toby takes his place in a dogsled championship, competing for a cash prize that could save the family from bankruptcy.
The drama could easily have become ridden with clichés, but writers Jeff Maguire and Djordje Milicevic have drawn the main characters with subtlety, spreading maturity and foolishness in equal amounts between father and son. Bisson’s Toby is appealingly well rounded, capable of acting clownish one moment and displaying impressive survival skills the next. Meanwhile, his shy romance with Sarah (Stephanie Morgenstern) has a lyrical poignancy that appears realistic.
Although the film is grounded in family conflict and youthful sexuality, Toby McTeague finally enters an almost magical realm. In Toby’s climactic sled race, his lead dog—loaned to him by the chief—appears to take flight. That moment of mysterious, joyful triumph crystalizes what is best about Toby McTeague: it has that rare ability to unite adults and children in the enjoyment of a common pleasure.
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